The rise and rise of wacky vegetables

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Weird and wonderful vegetables such as this Mr Curly-style pepper are increasingly popular with consumers, it seems.
Weird and wonderful vegetables such as this Mr Curly-style pepper are increasingly popular with consumers, it seems.
Peter-Ashley Jackson, Flickr CC, httpswwwflickrcomphotosp22earl


What's with all the crazy vegetables? There are the neo-hybrids: Broccolini®, Kalette™ and now, the TomTato®. There are phytochemically-charged cauliflowers in fluoro-bright hues and two-toned tomato plants. And there are the odd-shaped potatoes and mutant carrots you’ll now find, discounted, at supermarkets across the nation.

The new hybrids

Once, aubergines, bok choy, zucchini and kiwi fruit were considered ‘exotic’ by most Australians. Now, they’re commonplace ingredients and consumers are continually hungry for the next new thing.

A decade or so ago, Australia got Broccolini®, first developed in 1993 by Yokohama’s Sakata Seed Company as Aspabroc. This year saw the arrival of the Kalette™, a hybrid of Brussels sprouts and last year’s super-food fad, kale. The cruciferous vegetable combo, first released in the UK as the Flower Sprout®, was rebranded for the US market as ‘Kalette’™ to capitalise on that nation’s love affair with kale.

A hybrid of broccoli and Asian green vegetable gai lan, Broccolini® was developed in 1993 by Sakata Seed Company in Yokohama, Japan, which still owns all the genetic material.
A hybrid of broccoli and Asian green vegetable gai lan, Broccolini® was developed in 1993 by Sakata Seed Company in Yokohama, Japan, which still owns all the genetic material.
Jade Craven, Flickr CC, httpswwwflickrcompeoplecravenjade

The Brussels sprout-kale hybrid is no fluke; it is the result of selective crossbreeding over 15-odd years, with white-coated technicians carefully tweaking each breeding cycle to lengthen the plant’s potential growing season, neutralise the sulphurous Brussels sprout flavour and boost the hybrid’s aesthetic appeal.

The result has the thick stalk of a Brussels sprout with the leaf conformation of kale, and is reputedly a nutritional powerhouse (as are all cruciferous vegetables).

Kalettes™ grown in the Adelaide Hills region have been available exclusively from Coles supermarkets across Australia since mid-May 2015.

Latest in the hybrid vegie line-up is the Potatom: a potato-tomato plant that produces both vegetables, released onto the European market in late April 2015 by Dutch nursery operation Plantenkwekerij Vreugdenhil.

Created by hand-grafting cocktail tomato plants onto potato plants -- possible because both belong to the solanaceae (nightshade) family – the marvellous Potatom plant is capable of producing both potatoes and up to 400 cherry tomatoes in a season. PotaToms are not perennials; nor are they harvestable immediately (unlike the parent company’s wildly successful Pick-&-Joy range)  – they must be planted out and staked or trellised, say the makersbut otherwise, what’s not to love about these double-duty nightshades?

The Potatom is not unlike the TomTato®,  announced in 2014 by British company Thompson Morgan.

The hybrid was deemed worthy of a ‘Craziest F***ing Thing I’ve Ever Heard’ segment on US satirist Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report (24 Oct 2013). The TomTato®, which allegedly produces up to 500 cherry tomatoes and two kilograms of potatoes per plant, is now available in the US through exclusive distributor Territorial Seed Company as ‘Ketchup’n’Fries’. You heard it: Ketchup’n’Fries. Only in America.

It’s not exactly a new idea - and all these tater-tom hybrids have been developed over years of crossbreeding so they’re not copying each other, either. A same-same-but-different version is available in New Zealand as DoubleUP™ - Potato Toms™. The DoubleUP™ was introduced in 2013 by Incredible Edibles and the company claims one plant can produce up to 400 cherry tomatoes and up to four kilos of spuds per plant. That's impressively productive, especially when you consider DoubleUPs can be grown in backyard pots.

The Potatom, Plantenkwekerij Vreugdenhil’s Van Heijst told Science Daily, “follows a growing demand for self-produced vegetables and fruit in our own homes”. Other nightshade-species hybrids are almost certainly in the pipeline (stay tuned for the eggplant-tato and the chilli-pot).

Two-tone tomatoes and DayGlo cauliflowers

A British supplier recently grafted two tomatoes of dissimilar colour onto a single plant so that it would yield both yellow and red tomatoes. But two-tone-tomato plants pale into insignificance in comparison to DayGlo-bright, nutrient-packed cauliflowers.

They may look as if they’ve been injected with fluoro dyes but there’s nothing unnatural about coloured caulis; they’re just different varieties of the common cream or white variety – with a bonus: their intensely pigmented bulbous heads reflect the presence of potent (and potentially life-saving) phytochemicals.

Coloured cauliflowers such as these purple, orange and yellow-green varieties contain various potent phytochemicals that have significant potential health benefits.
Coloured cauliflower varieties contain various potent phytochemicals that have significant potential health benefits.
Jules Morgan, Flickr CC, httpswwwflickrcomphotosladymissmarquise

Cauliflower, a member of the family Brassicaceae, which also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage and kale, is a super-food in its own right, loaded with dietary fibre, folate and vitamin C, potassium and disease-fighting sulphurous compounds. Over generations, cauliflowers have been bred without the natural pigments that would otherwise stain their heads green-yellow, orange or purple – so technically, cream-white caulis are the ‘unnatural’ ones.

Recently, the coloured varieties have been finding their way onto the shelves of mainstream food retailers such as Coles as ‘boutique’ vegetables – often at a healthy mark-up.

But they don't just look pretty on the plate: coloured cauliflowers bring all the beneficial properties of their blander cousins to the table, and then some.

The cauliflower is unique in that its coloured varieties contain three of the four major food pigments found in animals and plants. Riddle says these pigments offer some significant health benefits. “Beta-carotene, when consumed, metabolises into vitamin A, which plays an important role in ocular heath. Chlorophyll is an antioxidant and acts as a sort of internal deodorant,” he says.

Purple-headed caulis are full of anthocyanin, the beneficial antioxidant found in red wine. Orange caulis’ beta-carotene, (the phytochemical that gives carrots their bright-orange hue), in addition to ocular health, is linked with improved immune system and lung function; while yellow-green varieties, packed with chlorophyll, have potent antioxidant properties and a number of other potential health benefits.

With much scientific evidence pointing to the cancer-combatting properties of cruciferous vegetables including cauliflowers, and the extra oomph offered by the bright-hued varieties, the big question is why we’re not eating multicoloured caulis every night of the week.

‘Ugly’ fruit and veg

On the back of a successful British push to save undersized and misshapen fresh produce from going to waste by selling it cheaply in supermarkets, Australian food retailers started offering offbeat fruit and veg to Aussies in September 2014 through NSW-based Harris Farm supermarkets.

Less than three months later, on 30 November 2015, celebrity chef-spokesperson Jamie Oliver and his son Buddy launched Woolworths’ nationwide ‘Odd Bunch’ initiative. And in early December 2014, wholesale produce supplier Spade & Barrow added a ‘naked’n fresh’ range of oddly sized and shaped fruit and veg (dubbed ‘Nature’s Grade’) to its line-up, also at discounted prices.

Oddly shaped carrots and other misshapen fruit and vegetables are often used as stockfeed or left to rot in paddocks because retailers won't buy them.
Oddly shaped carrots and other 'aesthetically challenged' fruit and vegetables are often used as stockfeed or left to rot in paddocks because retailers won't buy them.
Larry Krause, Flickr CC, httpswwwflickrcomphotosclickclique

Acceptance of ‘aesthetically challenged’ fruit and veg (till recently deemed fit only for processing or animal feed thanks to appearance-conscious first-world consumers) is a win-win-win-win, with producers, retailers, consumers and the environment all benefiting.

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